My first editor, Pat Vecchio, always told me that if you had to call somebody famous or legendary, they really weren’t.
So it’s with that in mind that I remember Frank Deford, simply one of the finest sports writers ever, who died on Monday.
I’m not the best person to speak about Deford. So I’ll leave it to those who are qualified to do so:
I read that paragraph. Then I read it again. And then I read it again. And then I put the book down by my side, and I closed my eyes. I felt as if I had been struck by something like lightning. And with that one paragraph, I suddenly knew what I wanted to do, saw the mountain peak that I would climb toward for the rest of my life. I just wanted to write LIKE THAT, even once. That was Frank Deford.
As time went on, I would ask Frank questions now and again, usually by phone, sometimes by these things called letters. Not often. He had his life, I had mine, and we did not run in the same circle. Nobody was asking me to do Miller Lite commercials, after all. One day, perhaps a year into my employment, I got a note from Frank that read something like: “I’ve been reading your stuff. It’s pretty good. But resist the urge to end every paragraph with a direct quote. You’re a writer, not a stenographer.” Indeed, that’s what I had been doing. It was a habit that came partly from working at newspapers and partly from the fact that I thought I needed to show–either to the reader, to my bosses, or both–how many people I was interviewing. But it was so damn true. I tweeted out that little morsel earlier this afternoon (on May 29) and was surprised at how many responses I got. It was another writing lesson. Maybe I’ve had four good ones in my life, and Deford supplied two of them.
Deford wrote so well it obscured his divining-rod abilities as a reporter. He always seemed to land on just the right quote. One of Coach Sullivan’s players told him, after a plane crashed near the practice field, “The only thing that crossed through my mind was that the Russians were attacking us, and that they had decided they had to go after Coach Sullivan first.” In a 1999 profile on Bill Russell’s emergence from self-imposed exile, Deford got Celtics great Tommy Heinsohn to say that Russell “won 11 championships in 13 years, and [Boston] named a fucking tunnel after Ted Williams.”
The funny thing was, Frank didn’t write about people who were easy to like. Jimmy Connors. Bobby Knight. Bill Russell. They defied idolizing. Frank picked them on purpose, I think, because he understood that sports are stories we tell ourselves about who we would like to be — but aren’t. Games are not stories on the level of Hollywood, or best-selling novels; there is a crucial difference: What happens on the field is real, authentic in a way no movie can be, with real people committing real acts. Athletes are ordinary beings with the same flaws as the rest of us, and like all of us, they frequently fail. They fail, they curse, they snarl, and they fail ethics tests, too. They are not the perfect representations of virtue we’d like them to be. This is where all the trouble starts. And that was right where Frank Deford went, and started digging in.
But another perspective would ascribe even more influence to Deford and his oeuvre of bonuses, the 4,000- to 5,000-word features that appeared in SI under his byline over a roughly quarter-century span that begins in the late Sixties. At first he would go hors piste, filing assessments of roller derby or Soap Box Derby or Little Irvy, a frozen, 20-ton touring whale. But the humanity in him ultimately brought him back to human beings. In appraisals not just of Connors and Knight, but of Howard Cosell, Jimmy the Greek, Pete Rozelle and Bob Feller, Deford picked up books long judged by their cover and actually leafed through them. He didn’t use many quotes from his subjects, for he didn’t really want to yield his soapbox. (Deford: “For some reason, American writers cannot just note that a hitter blasted a 450-foot home run and describe the scene in their own words. Instead, they have to rush down to the locker room and get the slugger to certify the fact by saying something superfluous like ‘I really got hold of that one.’”)
But if he found a quote that worked—that somehow nailed his subject—he’d hammer at it again and again. Repetition and callbacks were among his tricks, as was an acute feel for the architecture and pacing of a piece. As one of his editors, Myra Gelband, put it, “He’d hang bells throughout the story, and at the end go back and ring every one.”
Frank showcased the finesse and power of the written word and, yes, he made me want to read. Now that Frank is gone, without his prose to amplify what flashes in front of our eyes, the world is a decidedly duller place. But he would roll his eyes at the idea of us in mourning, with dour looks affixed to our mugs. Instead, he would want us to carry the torch of storytelling, and aspire to the wicked grace that he reached for with every article. The best tribute to Frank Deford, in a world of emojis, would be a commitment by writers to never stop writing, and always make the effort to color the world more brightly by exploring shades of gray.
But there always was an air of royalty to him, always, in the way he spoke, and the way he carried himself, in the words he wrote, and even in the notes he would write if he particularly liked something you’d written. His name was always signed in purple. We are his heirs now, the sons and daughters to whom he has handed the duty of creating what immortality we can and bestowing it on the people and the events that we chronicle. It is a fearsome, loving commission, as old and endless as starlight in a cold winter’s sky, where the ones who have gone before wait now, whispering the stories for the rest of us to tell.